Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Tony Kushner
“Sometimes when you're not able to write it's because you're struggling deep inside with something that isn't ready to be words on a paper or in your laptop. If you don't call it a block, it doesn't become one.”
To Form a More Perfect Union
Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner re-traces his six-year odyssey in scripting Lincoln and illuminates how the bloody and transcendent story the film centers on is still playing out in America today.

Written by Dylan Callaghan

(November 16, 2012)

The new film Lincoln draws its considerable dramatic power from the moral, existential dilemmas that churn at America’s core. It’s unlike any film legendary director Steven Spielberg has made both because of its singular title character and its screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and progressive intellect Tony Kushner.

Kushner’s script draws most significantly from historian Doris Kerns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and focuses on the muddy political process into which Lincoln waded to pass the 13th Amendment ending slavery in America. In addition to employing every seamy tactic of political persuasion, Lincoln must also directly forestall nascent peace overtures from the Confederacy to ensure passage of the amendment.

So here we see a haunted, but endlessly avuncular Lincoln, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who, already ravaged by the deadliest war in American history, must knowingly put more blood on his hands to reach an end that will both justify all those who have died and pave a real, lasting future for a fragile Union.

It might surprise some moviegoers that the film centers mostly on the political process in January 1865 when the U.S. Congress puffed and bickered and the White House horse-traded to pass the amendment. It makes the film keenly apropos of now while remaining historically pitch perfect – a ringing reminder of how a process as messy, bloody, and base as representative democracy has the power to elevate the human race and render freedom real. The film shows how, despite overused and empty political platitudes, America is truly unlike any nation in human history.

Kushner is most famous for his two-part play Angels in America, about the AIDS crisis during 1980s Reagan America, and he’s worked with Spielberg once before on the film Munich. On the day after the Presidential election, during an in-depth conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, he illuminated his six-year odyssey writing Lincoln, Spielberg’s genius for narrative, and how the story this film centers on is still playing out in America today.

Photo: ©2012 DreamWorks
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

It's amazingly apt to be talking to you about this film on November 7, the day after the re-election of President Obama.  


What aspects of this film’s story resonate most relevantly to what’s happening now in America for you?  

I've been working on this film for six years now, but I was working on the third draft of it on election night 2008. And so I've been working on it pretty much non-stop through the Obama presidency, and it's been a great way to look at American politics, to watch things unfolding through a kind of Lincoln lens. Because, maybe more than at any other point in American history it seems that the Lincoln administration is an example of what happens when an extremely talented, progressive centrist in the White House joins forces with an activist left in Congress. Really astonishing things start to happen in the country and transformations of historical significance begin to become possible.

I feel like we've been watching another version of that unfolding in the White House for four years, and there are some lessons that we have to draw from thinking about Lincoln. The cynicism about government – I mean, on the right, government has become a dirty word [and] people on the left sort of don't want to get too close to it [either] – we think it's unlikely to produce anything of value. A reinvestment from the progressive community in the possibilities of radical transformation through electoral democracy would be a really great and timely thing.

But I didn't write the film – and I know Steven didn't make the film – as a kind of political message, so [I’m] always a little bit nervous to answer that question. But it feels like it's a good moment for the movie to be coming out, in a sense, because it explores how dirty the democratic process is and how gritty and clumsy and sometimes downright unappealing, but that good things can happen as a result.

Some people who haven't read about the film might be surprised when they see it, thinking it's going to be a Hollywood take on Lincoln and the Civil War, when it's really a historical drama about the sort of sausage-making truth of democracy.  

Steven agreed that we could focus on a portion of the administration rather than all four years, which I knew was just too much material to do anything other than run lightly through all the high points and not really say anything about anything. So I asked him if we could just concentrate on a portion of it.

My initial plan was to do September of 1863 all the way to the end and that proved to be just completely impossible. It was much too much material. Then after the [Writers] Guild strike in '07-'08, when I went back to work on it, I had a realization that I could focus just on the last four months and that pretty much every theme I'd begun to see as recurrent in the four years of Lincoln's administration occurred during that four-month period. The script was [originally] divided into four acts – January, February, March, and April. The January section was the fight for the 13th Amendment and then each of the other months went on in considerable detail about what happened in each of those months. It's astonishing stuff, but the first draft was 500 pages long. When Steven read the whole thing we immediately began to talk about how excited we were about just the first quarter of it, just the fight for the amendment.

Then over the course of the next two and a half, three years, everything else began to fall away, and the January stuff kept intensifying. So it was a kind of a natural process. Ultimately, though, Steven gets the lion's share of the credit for having the nerve to make the first studio film about Lincoln in 72 years about just one incident in his life that most people don't even know about. I mean people don't think about the 13th Amendment, they think about the Emancipation Proclamation as the big event in terms of the end of slavery. One of the things that I love about working with Steven is that he likes scaring himself and doing unexpected things. Even at this stage in his career he's really interested in being uncomfortable.

Were you concerned at all that such a tight timeframe would give you enough time to develop these characters and engage the viewer in the scope of the drama?  

I felt like the condensation was going to work very much in our favor in terms of involving you in characters because the frustration of any biopic is, when you're racing through all the events of a life you don't get to see people get down on all fours putting wood on the fire or sitting with their son on their lap. Those things are the moments where you start to feel a deep degree of empathy that you might not feel when the guy is standing on a little platform in Gettysburg Cemetery delivering the Gettysburg Address, you know? So I felt certain that it would humanize him. Also, the rhythms and structure of a life are determined by all sorts of things, including accidents, and drama is not like that. Drama really, as I understand it, is an organized series of conflicts, and you can't really expect a life to deliver that. There are certain lives, like Lincoln's, that would take a three year mini-series to capture.

But most lives don't have an inherently dramatic structure – they're messier than that. If you are a biographer then your job is to turn that into a book. If you're a dramatist, a film screenwriter or a playwright, your job is to create drama. It seems risky to me to surrender entirely to biography, that you want the ability to shape a specific moment, so that's why concentrating on one moment seems like a good idea.

You seem to have made pains in the script to illuminate the blood on Lincoln's hands in as stark a manner as possible rather than romanticizing anything. You take people right to the precipice of the moral abyss with this decision.  

I'm really glad that you got that and that you felt that in the movie. It's a really important part of the story. One of the Confederate commissioners says it in the scene at the end of the film when he finally meets with him on the boat.

You can look at the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery as being an absolute triumph of democracy. In the Gettysburg Address, [Lincoln] presents this terrible, bloody war as a kind of a testing of a proposition, you know? “We are met on the battlefield… engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." I mean he literally lays it out as like a science experiment.

They now raised the estimate of the number of deaths from the 600,000 that we thought it was for most of the first 150 years after the war, [to] 750,000-800,000. In a nation of 30 million people, that's a lot of people dying on the battlefield.

It's unbelievable.  

Yeah, it's beyond belief. And you know, the commander in chief on the Union side is this guy who literally couldn't bear to swat a fly. I mean he was an enormously gentle, non-violent man who became a great military president and did… terrible things. That’s, it seems to me, the motion of democracy and progress. It's both glorious and affirming of the best things of the human spirit. As a species we haven’t seemed to figure out yet how to advance without holocaust, without massacre, without horror. That seems to me to be a central dialectic, and it’s nowhere more powerfully evident than in the American Civil War and, specifically, in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

This material is obviously monumental, no pun intended. Did you get lost in the woods along the way and how did you deal with that as a writer?  

As I mentioned I spent the first two years [writing] three versions of the screenplay, and three times I tried to write what I felt was going to be an ordinary length screenplay going from September of '63 to April of '65. All three times I got as far as January of 1864, with about 150 pages, and I realized that I was never going to get all the way through '64 and even to '65. I mean it was just not possible.

I kept thinking, “Well, there must be some way to condense this material.” So that was kind of getting lost in the woods, and then because of the Writers Guild strike I had to stop writing for a while which [was key]. I have found that when you put something away for a little bit of time and let it cool down, you can come back and see it more clearly. When I came back after the strike and looked at the material I suddenly thought, “Oh, wait a minute, I don't have to include it all. I can't. What if I just did this one section?” The break helped with that.

You had a new clarity.  

Yeah, you never really get lost. I mean you could go into the woods [and] never come out again and waste the rest of your life trying to write something that you'll never find. But for most people, some part of your unconscious, some part of you has a real nose for where the thing you’re searching for is and will direct you. It always turns out – for me at any rate – that I never really look back and think, “Oh God, that was such a waste of time.”

Any writing, any kind of a churning up of material that essentially became the screenplay was important. I had been practicing for two years writing people talking in 19th century diction and practicing making Abraham Lincoln talk, which was hard. It was scary to try and put words in Abraham Lincoln's mouth.

There was this famous wilderness tracker in the middle of the 19th century who was famous for never getting lost, and he disappeared into the Wasatch Mountains. No one knew where he was, so all the papers wrote that he was lost in the mountains. A month later he showed up and a reporter said, “What did it feel like to be lost?” He said, “I wasn't lost, I just didn't know where I was for a while.” That's sort of what it is… We talk about having writer’s block or being lost, and we give it this negative name, but it isn't that. Sometimes when you're not able to write it's because you're struggling deep inside with something that isn't ready to be words on a paper or in your laptop. If you don't call it a block, it doesn't become one.

So getting lost is sometimes getting found.  

Yeah, absolutely. That's a good way to put it.

True to your nature as a playwright, you use a lot of dialogue here. It is poetic and amazingly true to these characters, but it's also doing a lot of heavy lifting as far as plot and exposition. How do you marry the beauty and the poetry with the character tone and functional duty?  

This was a really hard one because the amount of expositional material that you needed to deliver to set the audience up to watch what was happening [was] really terrifying. There’s not only the Alice-through-the-looking-glass thing of having a government where the Republicans are the progressives and the Democrats are the reactionaries and getting a modern audience to feel comfortable and understand that, you have to then explain fairly arcane things about the process. It's tricky to do that and when you've set a story entirely in the upper levels of the government it's unlikely that anybody's going to really need to explain very much to anybody else. They're all going to talk in shorthand.

So Steven and I struggled with that a lot more than anything else. The first 20 minutes of this movie were the hardest. From the time I started writing it all the way through filming and even in post-production, we were just picking over it, trying to make it really available. It helps if you're working with Steven Spielberg who, in terms of narrative clarity, is the absolute master. He's got an unbelievable genius for clarity of narrative that isn't in any way dumbed down. He doesn't let anyone in the audience get confused unless the confusion is part of the entertainment, part of the life of the thing.

But you guys also seemed to know what not to over-explain.  

Yeah, well, thanks. I hope that's true. We had to struggle with that too. There were times when it felt like, “Oh my God, if I hear this explained one more time I'm going to shoot myself.”

I always feel like exposition [is] an act of faith in a certain sense; you have to believe that people are smart. An audience is going to really work hard to keep up with the story so that you don't bore them by explaining things they already know, that they can tolerate a certain amount of frustration and waiting in curiosity before the information is delivered. So there's a kind of a belief in an audience's capacity and partnership with you…

Is it ironically like democracy itself, like being president?  

Absolutely. You look at what Lincoln did. He constructed a narrative over the course of the Civil War that people could follow, starting out saying, “We must save the Union,” and ending by saying, “We only save the Union and, in fact, only save the idea of democracy itself if we eliminate its antithesis and its nemesis, slavery.” Without any kind of cynical manipulation, [Lincoln] senses that the people are ready to follow him.

With Spielberg there's a kind of a democratic ethic there that feels very much like the fundamental principles of democracy to me, that everyone's included, and no one is left behind. You can stop one of his big action sequences, like in [Saving] Private Ryan at any point and ask anyone in the audience, “Okay, what's going on right now?” and they'll always be able to tell you because he doesn't create chaos. He creates a narrative. Even if the narrative is expressive of chaos, it’s a legible, coherent narrative. I find that very moving. It's like Dickens, you know? It's popular art of a very high order because it demands a lot of people, but it also makes everyone feel that they can be a part of it. He's really astonishing that way.

Do you feel there is this crucial aspect to writing where it’s both true that you have to make sure your readers can follow, but where you cannot write well unless you trust and respect the intelligence of the reader?  

I've always felt – I don't know if this is true about screenwriters, I'll have to think about that – [that] there are two kinds of playwrights. There are people like the people you just described who want to join forces with an audience and together you move forward into the dark to figure out what's in there and what it means. Then there are playwrights who – and I don't look down on them or dismiss this as a strategy – but there are playwrights who really have a more antagonistic relationship to their audience. They don't want the audience's partnership, they want to have an effect on the audience, to catch the audience up. Milton does that in Paradise Lost or Vince Gilligan does it in a certain sense in Breaking Bad. You catch the audience falling in love with the devil and remind them, at the moment they've fallen most deeply in love, that it's the devil, you know? So their aesthetic experience replicates the fall of humanity…

I'm sure Vince Gilligan would be incredibly pleased to have been compared to Milton.  

Well, I'm sure I'm not the first person who’s doing it, I mean [saying] that Breaking Bad is Miltonian. That moment at the end of the last season when you realize that you've been staring at a monster. You had all the evidence you needed that this guy has become a monster, and he's done it right in front of your eyes, but because of all sorts of assumptions and suppositions and the thrill and power, you've been completely seduced by it. I found that terribly upsetting and amazing.

I don't feel like I can do that, and I don't feel like it's the only kind of thing there is to do, but it’s an interesting… I don't know if it divides that neatly, but it seems to me that different writers have different relations to their audience.

Do you feel that America remains in some ways still tragically unhealed or riven by not only the Civil War but by the 13th Amendment?  

Yeah. I grew up in the Deep South, and there is absolutely no question for me as a result of the South – or the white South – never having really come to terms with what the war was about, what they were fighting, they've never been able to really move past it. To a certain extent that might be true of the whole country. I mean the whole country participated in the screwing up of Reconstruction, it wasn't just the South.

But you know, there's just devastatingly irrefutable evidence all along the way to Plessy v. Ferguson that what we went through as a nation and what African Americans especially were put through for the 100 years of Jim Crow and segregation and lynch law and all that, wasn't necessary, and that we were actually poised before that decision to begin to really transform ourselves. I mean something much different could have happened… I believe that if Abraham Lincoln had lived he would have been guiding the country to that. Then this monstrous decision that made segregation completely constitutionally acceptable [and] produced 100 years of horror and misery, wouldn’t have happened.

The president talked about this last night – some of the wounds of this war are beginning to heal. We’ve now elected and re-elected an African American president who – miracles, miracles – also turns out to be a great president and a man from Illinois and a man who reads about Abraham Lincoln. And, you know, that's astonishing.